Visiting al-Aqsa ignites debate in Egypt
CAIRO - A leading scholar from al-Azhar said Egyptians should visit al-Aqsa Mosque, challenging a decades-old ban by the religious authority on visits to the Old City of Jerusalem.
Al-Azhar’s grand sheikhs, the highest seat of Sunni Islamic learning, prohibited visits to Jerusalem since the early 1970s, saying the trips would create revenue for the state of Israel and harm Palestinians.
However, Usama al-Azhari, a senior scholar at al-Azhar and secretary of the Religious Affairs Committee in the Egyptian parliament, said visiting the city would help make it known that the Palestinians are not alone in their struggle.
“Visits to al-Aqsa Mosque will be a loud expression of solidarity with the Palestinians,” Azhari said. “These visits will highlight the Arab identity of Jerusalem at this tough time.”
By calling on Muslims to visit Jerusalem, in general, and al-Aqsa Mosque, in particular, Azhari could be stepping into a political minefield. Those making similar calls have been accused of being pro-Israel or advocates of the normalisation of relations with the Jewish state.
Although Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel almost four decades ago, popular feelings in Egypt are strongly anti-Israel. Egyptians considering visiting Israel or meeting Israelis, including the government officials, are derided by the media and made social outcasts.
Former Islamic Endowments Minister Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk came under intense pressure for calling for an end to the boycott of al-Aqsa but he renewed his pitch in January.
In April 2012, Egyptian Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa was strongly criticised for visiting al-Aqsa Mosque. Gomaa said he did not advocate normalising relations with Israel, which is why he entered the West Bank from Jordan, not Israeli territory. “This means that I did not get an Israeli visa on my passport to enter the city,” Gomaa said.
The issue of having an Israeli stamp in one’s passport is another reason many Egyptians are averse to visiting al-Aqsa, even though visiting the site is an obligation in Islam.
Egyptian political analysts said visiting the mosque will not help the Palestinians and could harm the Palestinian cause.
“Those who claim that visits to the mosque will help the Palestinians are mistaken,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Visits to the mosque and the Old City of Jerusalem, in general, will give Israel the chance to project an image of a state that guarantees freedom of faith on the territories it controls.”
Opponents of visits to the mosque say trips to religious sites in Jerusalem would help the Israeli economy because financial dealings in the occupied Palestinian territories are done in Israeli shekels.
Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb said he opposes visits by Muslims to Jerusalem as long as the city is under Israeli occupation. Former Orthodox Pope Shenouda III, who died in 2012, opposed visits to Bethlehem by Egypt’s Christians.
However, Azhari said such attitudes harm the Palestinians’ struggle to protect their rights in Jerusalem.
“Attempts to eliminate the Arab identity of Jerusalem are non-stop,” Azhari said. “So, when Egyptians and other Arabs visit the city and its religious sites, they will have the chance to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians.”
Azhari’s initiative comes at a time the United States, the traditional peace-broker between the Palestinians and the Israelis, made the unprecedented move of relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
There are fears that a peace plan being prepared by US President Donald Trump could deny Palestinians the right to establish their capital in East Jerusalem and eliminate the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
This is why some people, including officials at the Coptic Orthodox Church, are considering Azhari’s initiative. Visits to Jerusalem, the officials say, should not be viewed as a “crime.”
“These visits will give us the chance to get closer to the Palestinians who suffer a lot under the Israeli occupation,” said Father Rafiq Griesh, Coptic Orthodox Church spokesman. He said the Coptic Orthodox Church welcomes visits by its followers to Jerusalem.
Azhari is the Islamic affairs adviser to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and is believed to be integral to Sisi’s repeated calls for religious reform. This has led his initiative for visiting al-Aqsa Mosque to being viewed as tacit state blessing for Egyptians to visit the Palestinian territories.
Azhari said any Egyptian visiting the Old City of Jerusalem should visit Palestinian homes, buy from Palestinian shops and eat Palestinian food.
“This is the only way we will break the siege imposed on the Palestinians of Jerusalem by Israel,” Azhari said. “We should not leave the Palestinians alone in this struggle for their rights.”